Sunday, February 10, 2008

Long Live The Tudors

Henry VIII and clan seize the pop culture throne ... again

By Gina Carbone

There are a lot of big titles on my small bookshelf: “Crime and Punishment,” “Anna Karenina,” “Catch-22,” “Nine Stories,” even some holdouts from my Ayn Rand phase. Nestled around these classics — and the only thing as dog-eared as the Harry Potters — is “The Other Boleyn Girl.”

Written by British author Philippa Gregory and published in 2002, “The Other Boleyn Girl” is historical fiction told from the perspective of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, who was King Henry VIII’s mistress before ol’ Greensleeves got to him. It’s a shamelessly trashy little bodice-ripper — and inaccurate on many points of Tudor history. But I love it. Love it. Eat it right up within a weekend every time I find myself returning to it. What would Dostoyevsky think if he knew he was sharing shelf space with someone who writes dialogue like, “She’s a Boleyn and a Howard. Underneath the great name, we’re all bitches on heat”? (At least it sits next to “The Idiot.”)

“The Other Boleyn Girl” was wildly popular beyond my shelf and it sparked something of a cottage industry for Gregory. She continued Tudor-era historical fiction with “The Queen’s Fool,” “The Virgin’s Lover,” “The Constant Princess” and “The Boleyn Inheritance.” None of them were as good. None of them had the story of Henry overthrowing the Catholic Church so he could get busy with his famous multi-marriage career. None of them had the necessary mix of sex, sibling rivalry, treachery, witchcraft, danger, betrayal and head-chopping.

Which is why the film adaptation of “The Other Boleyn Girl” starring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana, opening Feb. 22, will clean up at the box office. Yes, that’s two Americans and an Aussie retelling England’s history but the Brits had their shot with a TV adaptation back in 2003. Now it’s our turn to do it the Hollywood way.

The Tudors are fascinating. They always have been and Hollywood has obligingly shown its favor over the years.

In 1939, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn got dramatic as Elizabeth I and her ambitious lover in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

In 1966, “A Man for All Seasons,” like “The Other Boleyn Girl,” approached the Tudors from the supporting side, focusing on Henry VIII's advisor, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield).

In 1969, Genevieve Bujold wore the necklace with B for Boleyn in “Anne of a Thousand Days.”

In 1972, Vanessa Redgrave told the racy story of Elizabeth I’s cousin and chief rival “Mary, Queen of Scots.

More than 25 years later, in 1998, Shekhar Kapur brought the Tudors back to the Oscar table with a newcomer called Cate Blanchett as “Elizabeth.”

After that it was only a matter of keeping the ball in play. The Brits got back in the game in 2003 when Ray Winstone played a rough-tempered (think modern football hooligan) monarch in the “Henry VIII” miniseries co-starring Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn and a young Emily Blunt as his fifth wife (second beheaded), Catherine Howard.

In 2005 HBO produced Helen Mirren and a boatload of awards with its own miniseries, “Elizabeth I.” Suddenly the ante had been upped.

Last year Showtime — which is becoming the new HBO — launched “The Tudors,” a sexed-up MTV version of history starring hot young Irishman Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry and hot young Brit Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn. It’s more “O.C.” than Merchant Ivory but it’s still popular in its second season and Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam add a touch of class.

But last year also gave us a major Tudor turkey — “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Shekhar Kapur’s disastrous follow-up to the 1998 masterpiece. Cate Blanchett may be the first woman ever to be nominated for an Oscar for playing the same character twice, but it wasn’t worth having to suffer through wooden, high-school level puffery from the normally fetching Clive Owen.

Soon “The Other Boleyn Girl” is heading to your local theater. Later this year filming should begin on another “Mary Queen of Scots,” this one starring Tudor veteran Scarlett Johansson (who is completely right as Mary Boleyn and completely wrong as Mary Stuart).

What’s the attraction with this little sliver of history? And why return to it now?

Well, from a dramatic standpoint, history doesn’t get much better. It all started with The War of the Roses between the Yorks and the Lancasters, which ended with Henry VII — the first Tudor — in power. Then HenryVIII (1491-1547) shows up and marries his dead brother’s widow. He has a daughter; dumps the wife and the Catholic Church in one fell swoop; marries a woman he later declares a witch and beheads but not before having another girl — conceived before the wedding; marries another young girl who has the son he wants, she dies, he has an arranged marriage to a foreign woman he finds repulsive and divorces within days; marries a teenager who cheats on him and he then beheads; then marries a woman who had been married twice before him and once again after he dies.

His son ends up dying as a teenager, leaving his first daughter — Bloody Mary — leading a Catholic rampage, only to be replaced by his unwanted second daughter Elizabeth, a Protestant who turns out to be the greatest monarch in the nation’s history.

On top of that is Elizabeth’s own decades-long pissing contest with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots — a more beautiful and passionate scandal-maker — which ends in Mary’s beheading. (They are the cover girls of “Great Feuds in History,” which also lives on my bookshelf.)

It’s the best soap opera ever and it’s true!

Why now? Because royals are hot business. Here in America we think paying kings and queens just to be kings and queens is silly, but we’ve been weaned on Disney princess films and we’re enraptured by the aristocracy.

When Princess Diana died in 1997 the entire world went into mourning, yet feverishly followed the gossip. When “Elizabeth” came along in 1998 it was devoured by an audience hungry for more real-life royal intrigue. The Windsors probably made it easier for “The Other Boleyn Girl” to get published and for “Elizabeth I” and “The Tudors” to get green lights. Each new story about Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Harry and Chelsea or any other randy royal makes the Tudors that much more marketable. It’s today’s headlines, but with the safe distance of history.

And I love it. Can’t get enough. A newcomer to my bookshelf is “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War That Saved England,” which was published in 2006. It’s no “In Cold Blood” but it keeps my Tudor fixation sated until “The Other Boleyn Girl” film comes out. If I’m lucky they’ll make a film version of “Spymaster” with Geoffrey Rush reprising his “Elizabeth” character. If I’m not, I’ll just reread the books. I have a shelf of them.

Gina Carbone likes how Henry VIII wanted a son to secure England but ended up with a daughter who outruled him and let the bloodline die. History is fun, kids.